5 Years Ago Today: The Darfield Quake

We’d just returned from lunch with my parents in quiet suburban Chicago.  I’d left my iPhone at home because it was early in the morning in Christchurch, New Zealand, and I figured no one would call at that hour.

Checking my phone, I saw there were several missed calls from a few different people; something very strange was going on.

The first person on my list was Jacqui, and there was more than one call from her, so I phoned her. She answered, her voice shaky, and among the first things she said was, “We’ve had a big earthquake.”

I felt so helpless on the other side of the world, but the realisation dawned on me that this was that foreboding dark feeling I had before we left was. Something inside me told me to stock up on bottled water and canned goods, and I had started building up a “Get Thru” kit before we flew to Chicago. So, tied in with that thought was (and especially not knowing how damaged the place was), Jacqui and James, or whoever needed it, could access those supplies and use them to get through the first few days of the disaster. (Jacqui had a key to our house, and Phoebe and Sissy were at home.)

At the time, news reports were saying it was a 7.4 quake. (This later became a 7.1 quake.)

We spoke for a little while longer but Jacqui was very shaken and distracted, so we ended the call. I didn’t want to use up any further resources than needed, and I’m sure she wanted to get back to James and the kids as the aftershocks were rolling through.

Noel was in the toilet, but I felt the news couldn’t wait, so I told him about the quake. At first, he didn’t comprehend what I’d said; we’d always believed Canterbury was a lower-risk area of New Zealand for significant quakes. There’d been several 5s over the years, but nothing as big as a 7.4; if any fault would’ve gone, we assumed it would’ve been the Alpine Fault, the main fault on the South Island.

We were a bit shell-shocked, and my parents turned on CNN, which had continual coverage of the quake. There were images of the heavily-damaged cafe on the corner of Madras and Salisbury; people in the city wide awake; a woman saying she and her family were heading toward the Port Hills; and so on and so forth. I started to panic, especially since the cafe was only a few blocks from our work. Noel wasn’t too happy either. Thank God my parents were trying to settle us down. In the end, my Dad got us each a drink, told us to sit down and to drink the alcohol to calm down. (It worked.)

In the meantime, I was texting our friends in New Zealand with the news we were getting from CNN, which, scarily enough, was more information than anyone in Christchurch was getting from anyone in New Zealand. Noel, I believe, was getting in touch with friends and his Mum where we could.

What stands out is that feeling of powerlessness, being halfway across the world and not able to do anything. We asked Jacqui, Don, Adam, several others if they wanted us to fly home and help, and each came back with, “Why? You’ll just be taking up resources and we can get through this okay.” So, after asking this several times and getting the same answer from several different people, we stayed in the US for the rest of our planned trip.

There were plenty of other big earthquakes for us to go through once we got back to Christchurch. Mother Nature saw to that.